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Photo Credit: © Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

How the Canucks can use their poor blueline depth to their advantage during the expansion draft

Guess who’s back, back again? Guess who’s back, back again? Guess who’s back, guess who’s back…(x5)

Did you guys miss me while I was gone? No? Well, I’m just going to pretend like you did. 

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, the NHL is welcoming its 32nd team next season, as the Seattle Octop — I mean, Kraken — are set to join the league for the 2021-22 campaign. This means that GMs will start making trades with the expansion draft in mind, and the Canucks can take advantage of their lack of defencemen worth protecting to try and pry a young blueliner from rival teams.

In other words, prepare to be bombarded with articles talking about protected lists and potential trades over the next six months, which is exactly what we’re going to be discussing today. 

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Who will the Canucks protect?

Before we can dive into how the Canucks can take advantage of the system and make a trade for a young defenceman, we need to first map out who will likely be protected and exposed to Seattle. 

The NHL has decided to use the same Expansion Draft rules as they did when Vegas joined back in 2017, meaning that teams can elect to protect either seven forwards, three defencemen and one goalie or eight skaters (both forwards and defencemen) and one goalie. With that said, it’ll be surprising to see any club elect to go with the second option, since it’s not worth giving up two extra protected slots just to have a bit more flexibility when creating lists. 

Up front, it’s a no-brainer to protect Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser and J.T. Miller. After those four, it’s likely the team will opt to keep both Jake Virtanen and Adam Gaudette, which leaves one spot left for the forward group. 

Looking at the remaining players who are eligible to be exposed, Zack Macewen, Tyler Motte and Kole Lind are probably the most attractive options for the Kraken. Out of these three, I think Vancouver will decide to protect Motte, simply because the team wouldn’t want Canucks Twitter to burn down Rogers Arena if they choose otherwise. That being said, depending on how the season goes for all three of these players, this could change.

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In net, Vancouver will obviously protect Demko and leave Holtby up for grabs, who could be an attractive option should the veteran have a bounceback season. 

The blue line is where things get interesting. Not because the Canucks have hard choices to make, but because there really aren’t three defencemen who are absolutely keepers for the team. Quinn Hughes, Jack Rathbone, and Nikita Tryamkin (we’ll still be talking about him in 2049) are all exempt from the draft process, which means that Nate Schmidt is the only player who’s definitely going to be protected. 

Don’t get me wrong, Tyler Myers, Brogan Rafferty and Olli Juolevi are nice pieces to have, but none of them scream “must protect” to me. Myers is a competent #4 defenceman who’s overpaid and on the wrong side of 30, and it’s not a given that Rafferty or Juolevi will even become top 4 blueliners in the future. Meanwhile, Alex Edler is set to become a UFA at the end of the season, so there’s no need to worry about him either. 

So, what does this all mean? Well, the Canucks can leverage their lack of quality blueliners to protect to try and acquire a defenceman from teams who will inevitably leave one exposed, since Vancouver doesn’t need to worry about losing a must-have player from its backend. For instance, Vegas was able to acquire Shea Theodore from Anaheim since the Ducks were unwilling to expose *checks notes* Josh Manson!?!? 

GMs have definitely learned from their mistakes during the Vegas expansion process, but it’s still worth taking advantage of the draft rules to try and acquire a defenceman from an organization with too much depth on the blue line. There are two clubs in particular that make for obvious targets, which is what we’ll discuss next. 

Which teams/players could the Canucks target?

Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes are stacked with defensive depth both now and in the future, which I have (shameless plug) outlined in a previous article. Carolina will no doubt protect Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin, which will leave one of Haydn Fleury or Jake Bean available in the draft. There’s even a possibility that both might be exposed if the Hurricanes manage to re-sign Dougie Hamilton and protect him as well.

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Either one of those players will significantly improve the Canucks’ backend for years to come, as Fleury is ready to step into a top four role while Bean was just voted the most outstanding defenseman in the AHL. Neither of them shoots right-handed so they won’t fill that elusive spot on Vancouver’s top pair alongside Hughes, but that shouldn’t scare the Canucks away since there’s no guarantee that either Jack Rathbone or Olli Juolevi will become top 4 players capable of playing on the second pair’s left side.

Colorado Avalanche

Whenever Joe Sakic calls a rival team inquiring about a trade, they should just hang up right away. Over the past few seasons, “Burnaby Joe” has seemingly gone from the consensus worst GM in the league to the best, and the question now is when, not if, the Avalanche will win the cup. Colorado has one of the most lethal forward groups in the NHL but their blueline has somehow managed to be even more impressive. It’s inevitable that one of Cale Makar, Samuel Girard, Devon Toews or Ryan Graves will be exposed, with Toews and Graves looking like the most obvious choices at the moment. 

Similar to Carolina’s targets, both Toews and Graves are left-handed shots. However, the Canucks’ blueline as currently constructed is so thin that the team really can’t be picky about who they target in trades. The entire hockey world also just watched the Lightning bulldoze their way to the cup while having their three best defensemen all play on the left side, which shows that having one stable presence on each pair is more important than trying to come up with the perfect configuration of left-right shot balance.

Conclusion

With every team likely to go with the 7F/3D/1G protection list, the Canucks will be able to take advantage of their lacklustre backend to acquire a defenseman from organizations brimming with blueline depth. The likeliest targets include Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean from Carolina and either Ryan Graves or Devon Toews from the Avalanche. If they manage to trade for one of those players, the Canucks can then protect their new acquisition along with Nate Schmidt and one of Tyler Myers, Brogan Rafferty or Olli Juolevi.

Every one of those players will probably cost Vancouver either Vasili Podkolzin or Nils Hoglander plus additional pieces in a trade, but it could prove to be a worthwhile move considering the Canucks haven’t figured out a way to clone Quinn Hughes yet. Even if they aren’t able to acquire one of those defencemen, the team still needs to find other avenues to improve its backend since most contenders have multiple elite players patrolling their blueline.